An enduring problem that we face as curriculum theorists is the familiarity of our subject matter. At the other end of the spectrum, physical scientists benefit from the strangeness of the objects of their study: elementary particles, cosmic rays, and photons are not part of everyday experience. If they want to understand them they must be infinitely curious, and such curiosity becomes a natural part of the mind of the researcher. But as theorists and researchers in curriculum our ability to be curious is severely restricted because we have, from our earliest years, been in intimate contact with the objects and events that we study. We do not even benefit from the possibility of seeing curriculum as a recent invention; it has been around, in some form or other, since before the American Revolution. The results of this situation can be seen in the kinds of things to which theorists typically direct their attention and the ways in which they discuss them. On the one hand, they tend to think of curriculum as a matter of technique—how to devise materials or programs that will bring about specific learning; on the other hand, to represent it as a contest between students and teachers over what kinds of knowledge and values shall prevail in classrooms. What both positions have in common is a neglect of the question of what is special about curriculum—that is, what makes “curriculum” significantly different from other situations in which teaching and learning take place? It is a question that seldom gets asked because the answer to it lies in feelings and attitudes that are so commonplace that we do not see them as problematic. In this article I suggest that the uniqueness of curriculum lies in the fact that it is not simply about learning, but about institutionalizedlearning.1
As an introduction to that idea, let us imagine a small experiment. Let us assemble a group of ordinary U.S. citizens, show them some examples of situations where teaching and learning seem to be going on, and then ask them if what they are looking at is a curriculum or not. If they look into a 5th grade social studies classroom, will they say they are seeing a curriculum? What about an after-school practice for high school cheerleaders? Or a busload of junior high students sightseeing in Washington? Or some teenagers in their parents' kitchen learning to cook supper? Or a young person helping a friend with the skills involved in delivering newspapers around the local streets? My first guess is that our group won't often be in doubt as to whether they are seeing a curriculum or not. My second is that they might find it difficult to explain why they think that one situation is an example of curriculum and another is not. Somehow—and this is an important observation—people seem to have an instinct about such things, even if they don't always find it easy to justify the judgments they make. This instinct can be said to relate to two things: the activity and the setting. But the two are not separable. Sensing the presence of curriculum depends on the perception of an interaction between activity and setting.